American Idol? The Christian and Sports, Part One
by Greg Ketteman
Virgil’s Aeneid famously chronicles a scene from the Trojan War, in which the Greeks were unable to defeat the Trojans through usual battle tactics. So, they built a huge wooden horse, left it outside the gates of the city of Troy, and boarded their ships to sail away in apparent defeat. The Trojans brought the horse into their city as a symbol of victory, unaware that a band of Greek warriors were hidden inside. Later, the warriors crept out of the horse and opened the gates of the city. The Greek army rushed in, defeated the Trojans, and captured Troy.
This ancient story led to the common expression Trojan Horse, which is used to describe any crafty strategy used to slip something past defenses. For example, the computer virus that slipped in programming to disable or reconfigure another user’s computer became known as the Trojan Horse virus. The medical community refers to certain pathogens as Trojan Horses because they hide inside other organisms in the body, emerging later to cause disease or even death.
Satan skillfully implements this ancient strategy in his attempts to destroy people. He hides the seeds of death and destruction in things that appear harmless then surreptitiously releases his wiles to destroy the host. He hides addiction, poverty, misery, and even death inside a bottle of vodka or an oxycodone tablet. He disguises deadly greed and covetousness inside legitimate business ventures. He camouflages pride and selfishness in natural talents. He conceals deceit, jealousy, even lust within normal relationships. He hides excess, indulgence, and debauchery inside prosperity and leisure.
Could it be that Satan has another, seemingly harmless Trogan Horse at work in the lives of Christians today? Have sports become a hidden agent of destruction for many believers?
Confessions of a Sports Fan
I’ve been concerned about this subject for some time, although admittedly not while I mindlessly overdosed on sports as a young adult. My concern grew when my son Jack was involved in sports in high school and college. Somehow, watching him—seeing how my example affected him—prompted me to think more seriously about this subject. Thankfully, Jack found more balance than I ever did.
Let me illustrate where I’m coming from through some obvious analogies—a glutton writing about the sin of gluttony, an alcoholic writing about the sin of drunkenness. In my case, the reality is I’m somewhat of a sports addict writing about addiction to sports.
Frankly, I don’t remember hearing this conversation as a young man, or while my son was growing up. Perhaps the debate has been raging for years, and I missed it. After all, I’m not on the speed dials of most theologians, and I don’t monitor Facebook posts or keep up with the latest trends on Twitter.
Still, with the apparent lack of conversation regarding this important topic, I can’t help but wonder how much today’s Christians have worked to apply the principles of Scripture to involvement in sports. With this series of articles, my goal is simply to increase awareness of the imminent place sports now occupies in our culture (and the church), to highlight the inherent dangers of preoccupation with sport, and to heighten our resolve to apply principles of Scripture to our relationship with sport.
Are Sports Evil?
Sport dominates modern culture and threatens to supplant the evangelical church with its powerful appeal to meet the deepest needs of people. No area of American culture has a more powerful influence on the everyday lives of Americans. Perhaps most significantly, sport actually delivers on its potent but sadly temporal promise to fulfill age-old human needs for meaning, acceptance, belonging, and community.
Don’t get me wrong, we find many positive virtues in the world of sports such as real-life, concrete illustrations of the rewards of diligence, hard work, perseverance, and the pursuit of excellence. Sport also provides healthy physical activity and opportunity for human interaction. Sadly, many of these obvious virtues of sports are often neglected among evangelical Christians. Still, I do not suggest that sport should be eliminated completely from the lives of Christians or from cultural life in general. Sport does carry some redeeming value.
However, the fact that today’s American culture has become obsessed with sports cannot be denied. And this is not a new problem. President Herbert Hoover is purported to have said, “Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution.” Sociologist Harry Edwards stated, “If there is a universal popular religion in America, it is to be found within the institution of sport.” 
ABC Sports Announcer Keith Jackson commented about the Auburn-Alabama football game by quoting famous 1950s British soccer coach Bill Shankley who said, “It’s not about life and death. It’s more important than that.” And sainted Green Bay Packer’s Coach Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” James Michner quoted Paul “Bear” Bryant, legendary football coach of the University of Alabama as saying, “Football is not a religion. It’s more important than that.” 
In “Finding Religion in Sport,” Catholic Priest Frank Berna defines sports as religion because they, “offer a communal world view, they tell great stories, athletic contests engage the ritual imagination, and a fair contest relies on a moral code. Sports replace religion because, for the most part, they engage both athlete and spectator more effectively than organized religion.” Berna goes on to say, “My church is Fenway Park!” 
The Challenge for Christians
However, the lofty place sport holds among Christian people and the Christian church is sapping resources and vitality from us, and even threatens the commitment of many to Christ. The Christian’s attitude toward and participation in sport must be constantly monitored and evaluated, and the Christian must be prepared to fight for a balance that truly honors God in his life.
Salvaging the positive values of sport from the powerful current of today’s popular culture is no small feat. Much like trying to rescue a small child from a raging, flooded river, rescuing what is good about sport carries significant dangers for those who attempt to pull these values from the popular current.
It is hoped that rather than mindlessly promoting blanket approval of any and all involvement in sport, Christians will take up the cause of balance, beginning with a thoughtful consideration of their own involvement in sport as well as the involvement of others for whom they are responsible. While “bodily exercise profiteth little,” “Godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
I realize I have raised more questions than provided answers. But in the next issue, we will turn our attention to the uneasy relationship between church and sports that has existed throughout history and take a close and sobering look at the consequences when the Church is distracted or preoccupied by sports.
1 (Edwards, Sociology of Sport, 1973; Homewood, IL Dorsey; page 90).
2 Michener, James A., 1976. Sports in America. Fawcett Publishers, Greenwood, CT
3 Finding Religion in Sport: What Can Sports Teach Us About Worship?
About the Writer: Greg Ketteman is provost of Welch College. Learn more about the college: www.welch.edu.